The Constitutional Right to Travel

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overruled Roe v. Wade and jettisoned the federal constitutional right to abortion, there has been an uptick in discussions over the so-called “right to travel” between/among United States states.

Specifically, the discussion has centered on the issue as it pertains to the right of a citizen in an abortion-restrictive state to travel to an abortion-permissive state in order to have the procedure done there.

On the legislative front, the Senate recently blocked a Democrat-proposed law that would protect the right to travel freely from state to state to seek abortion care.

The right to travel is typically described as arising from the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV of the Constitution, among other constitutional provisions.

As one court recently explained:

While the “right to travel” is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the Constitution, it is “firmly embedded” in the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. See Saenz v. Roe, 526 U.S. 489, 498, 119 S.Ct. 1518, 143 L.Ed.2d 689 (1999). The constitutional right to travel “embraces at least three different components”:

[1] the right of a citizen of one State to enter and to leave another State,

[2] the right to be treated as a welcome visitor rather than an unfriendly alien when temporarily present in the second State, and

[3] for those travelers who elect to be permanent residents, the right to be treated like other citizens of that State.

A law only implicates this right when it actually deters such travel, when impeding travel is its primary objective, or when it uses any classification which serves to penalize the exercise of that right.

Jones v. Cuomo, 542 F.Supp.3d 207 (S.D.N.Y. 2021) (cleaned up) (discussing the “right to travel” in the context of covid-related restrictions); see also Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 142 S.Ct. 2228, 2309 (U.S. 2022) (Kavanaugh, concurring) (“[A]s I see it, some of the other abortion-related legal questions raised by today’s decision are not especially difficult as a constitutional matter. For example, may a State bar a resident of that State from traveling to another State to obtain an abortion? In my view, the answer is no based on the constitutional right to interstate travel.”).

It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the issue will be decided in the abortion context.

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